Putin: “The liberal idea has become obsolete.”

The latest in the wars against liberalism.

Liberalism is under attack worldwide. I don’t mean policies that are called “liberal” in the US context (like higher taxes or an increased minimum wage). I mean liberalism in terms of the notion that human beings have fundamental rights, that we are fundamentally equal, and that such principles are universal and transcend national borders.

The topic itself is vast, as is the current attack on it, so I am not going to try and deal with it completely here. But this line from the Declaration of Independence (as cribbed from John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government)* is a good basis statement of classical liberalism: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

If one actually believes that all are created (i.e., born) equal, then (for example), one ought to be looking at the asylum-seekers on the border as human beings with inherent value and with, in fact, unalienable rights. Treating them like a threat, or classifying them as criminals is way to dehumanize. It is certainly a way to justify what can only be described as evil treatment.

So, this context brings us to a interview with the Financial Times and Vladmir Putin, Vladimir Putin says liberalism has ‘become obsolete’

Mr Putin’s evisceration of liberalism — the dominant western ideology since the end of the second world war in 1945 — chimes with anti-establishment leaders from US president Donald Trump to Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Matteo Salvini in Italy, and the Brexit insurgency in the UK.

“[Liberals] cannot simply dictate anything to anyone just like they have been attempting to do over the recent decades,” he said.

Mr Putin branded Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to admit more than 1m refugees to Germany, mainly from war-ravaged Syria, as a “cardinal mistake”. But he praised Donald Trump for trying to stop the flow of migrants and drugs from Mexico.

“This liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done. That migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants have to be protected.”

I am, of course, not surprised to hear an obvious authoritarian make these statements. His actions in government have always been illiberal. It is no secret that he finds liberalism, especially in the US and in Europe, to be a threat to his regime. What is chilling is that much of what he is saying is also being said by the President of the United States. And, worse, it is being celebrated by his supporters.

Note the way in which Putin here (and Trump with some frequency) conflates migrants and violent criminals. And they both do so in a way that attempt to nullify the humanity of those people.

Putin also stated:

“Every crime must have its punishment. The liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.”

This may sound that some democratic notion “the overwhelming majority of the population” but let me note a few things.

First, as I have always noted in my writings about democracy: democracy is not crude majority rule. Real democracy (indeed, liberal democracy) requires respect for human rights even to the point of protecting an individual’s rights from vast majority opinion. Populism calls for crude majoritarianism (often linked to a specifically defined majority).

Second, this is about nationalism. The “overwhelming majorit[ies]” that he is talking about are the ethnic majorities in a given place. Russia for the Russians. Or, it is a call for the dominant culture to remain dominant, no matter the cost of human freedom. It is a way to justify, for example, persecution of homosexuals or religious minorities.

This is a dangerous pathway, and it is thinking that has clearly taken hold here in the United States (and, the sad truth is that it has always had proponents here).

I will end on this (I went to Twitter to look for something else, and this was staring me in the face):

I would note that the First Amendment is also a great thesis statement for basic liberal politics.


*Locke originally put it like this: “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions”

FILED UNDER: World Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. al Ameda says:

    Mr Putin’s evisceration of liberalism — the dominant western ideology since the end of the second world war in 1945 — chimes with anti-establishment leaders from US president Donald Trump to Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Matteo Salvini in Italy, and the Brexit insurgency in the UK.

    That paragraph, excerpted from the Financial Times piece, says much of what you need to know about Trump and his foreign policy.

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  2. mattbernius says:

    Second, this is about [white] nationalism. The “overwhelming majorit[ies]” that he is talking about are the ethnic majorities in a given place.

    I had to add the silent “white” back in there.

    I know that’s implied by what you wrote. But especially here in the US, it’s increasingly important to say that silent part out-loud and damn the people who are made uncomfortable by that.

  3. michael reynolds says:

    Russia is a nation of sullen drunks that has never been able to get out of its own way. The head of the Russian kleptocracy, a nation with a per capita GDP equal to that of Romania, a nation that Germany could buy outright with the spare change in Angela Merkel’s Mercedes cup-holder, a nation that has never been good at anything but killing and dying and writing mawkish poetry, has no business lecturing anyone on anything aside from the best ways to murder dissidents and buy American toadies.

    Take away Putin’s nukes – the patrimony of the failed state formerly known as the USSR – and Russia is Italy with less style, worse food and even more corruption.

    Just because Putin controls the buffoon in the White House doesn’t make him ten feet tall.

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  4. Teve says:

    “Get rid of them. Fake news is a great term, isn’t it? You don’t have this problem in Russia, but we do.”

    W.T.F.

  5. Teve says:

    Take away Putin’s nukes – the patrimony of the failed state formerly known as the USSR – and Russia is Italy with less style, worse food and even more corruption.

    and a much fuglier language.

  6. rachel says:

    @Teve: Uglier? I dunno… I actually like the sound of Russian.

  7. @mattbernius:

    I had to add the silent “white” back in there.

    I know that’s implied by what you wrote. But especially here in the US, it’s increasingly important to say that silent part out-loud and damn the people who are made uncomfortable by that.

    You are correct.

    I left it out (consciously) because the wave of global nationalism, while often white nationalism, isn’t exclusively such (see, e.g., the Philippines or Turkey).

  8. (not to mention that once upon a time, white nationalists in the US wouldn’t have counted Hungarians or Italians as “white”).

  9. Modulo Myself says:

    Russia is one of the most anti-semitic places on earth. Liberalism is about Jewish people, cities, empathy, irony, and ambiguity-the kind of things that make the Trump cult put on an extra pair of Depends before they start a heady day of mainlining Q-Anon and Fox.

  10. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Great points — I suspected that might have been your thinking.

    Yes, without a doubt, “white” (like most racial categories) has always been a moving target.

  11. Teve says:

    @rachel: Yeah it’s all subjective. In 2 years of college Spanish I never learned much at all. I realized in march that I just didn’t like how Spanish sounded, and the language I really liked was Italian, and got on DuoLingo, and in 3 months I’ve become much better in Italian than I ever was in Spanish.

  12. wr says:

    @michael reynolds: “a nation that has never been good at anything but killing and dying and writing mawkish poetry, ”

    To be fair, they’ve also come up with some pretty good novels and plays…

  13. @michael reynolds:

    Just because Putin controls the buffoon in the White House doesn’t make him ten feet tall.

    I am not sure if this is directed at my most or is just a general observation, but let me address it a bit.

    Sure, Russia is less powerful in an empirical sense than, say, China. and certainly its economy is not match, comparatively, to German.

    Nonetheless, Putin is a danger to liberalism–as 2016 demonstrates. Indeed, the whole point of interfering in our elections (and in Germany’s, and in France’s and in the UK’s, etc.) is to discredit liberalism (and if the bonus is electing an ally like Trump, so much the better).

  14. Jay L Gischer says:

    @michael reynolds: That’s a great rant, as always. I don’t quite agree, but whatever: You’ve started a thought process which I thought I’d share.

    Putin is a billionaire and he’s teamed up with several other Russian oil billionaires. So, is he more of a threat than the Koch brothers, who are also oil billionaires? More dangerous than Sheldon Adelson? Than the Mercers?

    I think he is, because he has the apparatus of a state behind him, and decades of training in a particular kind of tradecraft known as “information warfare”. They do it really, really well. Putin’s statement in question is a case in point. I don’t think that was a naive statement, I think it was meant to stir things up, bolster the people he wants bolstering and demoralize his enemies. Bear in mind that if all those populists ever got in his way, he’d crush them without hesitation. The only ideology he has is “more for me”.

    Different groups of people at different times often develop expertise. The Russians have a lot of expertise with computing, and with “stirring up crap”. They’ve put these together. I think that makes Putin’s Russia a lot more dangerous than Italy. There is nothing more dangerous to our modern world than a roomful of very smart people with a good broadband connection.

    Nukes are so Twentieth Century.

  15. Stormy Dragon says:

    Putin: “The liberal idea has become obsolete.”

    While he’s certainly wrong in the normative sense, I’m not sure he’s wrong in a purely descriptive sense.

  16. @Stormy Dragon: I would say that liberal idea is under attack. It may need to address some of its own deficiencies (actually, yes, it should).

    I don’t think it is obsolete yet.

  17. gVOR08 says:

    Our feeble response to Putin’s meddling in our election (and others) and to his manipulation of out President* certainly lend credence to his statement.

  18. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Normally an American President would be asked to comment (and hopefully condemn) Putin’s statement.
    The current American President doesn’t even have a clue about what Putin was talking about.

  19. Gustopher says:

    This is a dangerous pathway, and it is thinking that has clearly taken hold here in the United States (and, the sad truth is that it has always had proponents here).

    I don’t think this can be underemphasized. Democracy is far easier to love when you are in the majority, and when the majority starts slipping, they start talking about “a republic not a democracy” and the tyranny of the cities…

    I wonder if Russia has ruthless gerrymandering.

  20. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Morally the liberal idea shouldn’t be obsolete, but I think a lot of people have stopped believing it, so I think it can be described as being obsolete in terms of what the actual current state of politics is.

  21. Barry says:

    @Gustopher: “I wonder if Russia has ruthless gerrymandering.”

    I don’t know, but I’m sure that the ‘loyal opposition’ isn’t allowed to come within a loooooooong reach from getting a majority. At that point gerrymandering is irrelevant.

  22. An Interested Party says:

    This alone shows how low the Republican Party has sunk, that they would stand behind a president who is friendly with a foreign dictator (a Russian at that!) who interfered in our elections…this would have been unthinkable before Trump…we’re lucky this trash in the White House is more like John Yerkes Iselin than Eleanor Shaw Iselin…

  23. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @wr: It may be just me, but I liked the Russian poetry I read over the years. Maybe reading it in translation is the problem.

  24. CSK says:

    @wr:

    Anton Chekhov issued the greatest rule for writing ever: If you mention a gun in the beginning, it has to go off before the end.

  25. Mikey says:

    So a reporter asked Trump if he agreed with Putin that Western-style liberalism is obsolete, and Trump answered by slamming San Francisco and Los Angeles as “terrible to look at” because they’re “run by very liberal people.” He thought “Western liberalism” meant the liberals on the West Coast.

    Our President* literally does not know the principles that make up the most basic foundations of American government. Good God.

  26. @Mikey: He clearly does not, and it is profoundly disturbing.